And you thought Mission: Impossible was just fantasy. In the new documentary The Cove, a hand-picked team slips out from under the watchful eye of Japanese police surveillance and carries out a daring nighttime raid on a heavily guarded cove in Taiji. The team’s gray-haired leader is Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer who made Flipper possible, and its goal is to alert the world to the abuse and consumption of dolphins.
O’Barry blames himself for the rise of dolphin shows at marine parks, so his driving, redemptive goal in life is to put an end to dolphin exploitation. “I spent ten years building that industry up, and the last 35 years trying to tear it down,” says O’Barry, whose years of globe-trotting activism have led him to designate the sleepy port village of Taiji as ground zero for dolphin destruction. There, a team of fishermen use torturous methods to drive dolphins into the cove for the purpose of selling them into captivity at marine parks and swim-with-dolphin programs, or slaughtering them for their meat.
Director Louie Psihoyos (a National Geographic vet) and O’Barry hatch a plan to plant high-definition cameras inside the cove to let the world see what Japan doesn’t want getting out. Enter the highly-skilled covert team, including a couple of world-class free divers, an avionics engineer, and a production manager used to moving and setting up large-scale concert events. There’s no hiding their large complement of luggage when they check into a Taiji hotel, but it matters little: whenever Barry hits town, he’s automatically interrogated by local police sure he’s up to no good.
To get the coveted footage of the Taiji fisherman at work, the team will have to evade police tails and get into the closely watched cove. Psihoyos’ film is informative, exciting, and surprisingly emotional; the only thing that could improve it would be more step-by-step detail of the mission itself. But Psihoyos and O’Barry have bigger people to fry: the corrupted International Whaling Commission, which is used and abused by the Teflon-slick Japanese delegate Joji Morishita. So as not to demonize Japan, Psihoyos crucially gives a complete picture revealing how the bad guys are the ones who know exactly what’s going on and enable it, while most of the population is kept in the dark.
The Cove is filled with secrets and lies and sneaking around, but according to O’Barry, “the dolphin’s smile is nature’s greatest deception.” As for his goal of making us look at dolphins in a different way, mission accomplished.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]